Raphael was hampered by nearly always having a mockie up his nose and a thumb in his mouth

home life

It's a breezy, blowy, blaring blue day. Three gardens down, there's a frenzy of barking. The children are at school, the cats are piled in a hot fur haze on the top bunk bed and the builders next door are singing along to "Rhinestone Cowboy". I've got a lot of work to do, but I'm trimming my split ends with a pair of nail scissors. After a while, Jonathon comes in with three of Raphael's toy rabbits, chucks them on the dusty cupboard above the boiler. "I'm culling them," he says grimly.

"Not all of them," I plead as Hunky Bunky and Peter and Hunky's Father all fly off into the Bermuda Triangle of fluff and John Lewis carrier bags on top of the cupboard.

"I'm leaving him one," he says, Gradgrind incarnate, "Just one in his bed should be enough."

The rabbit culling has a purpose. At the moment, Jacob sleeps all night with a furry green snake. Chloe sleeps with a Captain Scarlet rucksack and Ken (stark naked except for a desert camouflage helmet borrowed from Action Man). And Raphael sleeps with the ears of about seven furry rabbits stuffed up his nose.

Raphael was less than a day old when he learnt to pull the sleeve of his babygro over his wrist and rub his nose with the terry towelling while the opposite thumb lodged in his mouth. We didn't complain. It meant our third baby was that rare and wonderful thing: a newborn who knew how to sleep by himself.

At 18 months, he graduated to his cot blanket - well, fair enough. But, and here was where the rot set in, it was pulled through the bars of the cot and dragged around the house and rubbed against his nostrils at emotionally challenging times of the day. Six months later, Jonathon wisely chopped the blanket into four squares. Christened "mockies" by Raphael, these were infinitely easier to transport, to suck, to find.

"Obviously, we'll have to wean him off them eventually," we told each other. But we were busy and tired, we'd produced a lot of kids in a short space of time and we were trying to work and play and care for them. Life was easier with a mockie around.

Eventually, Jonathon cut each mockie in half. We now had eight half-sized mockies. They looked very small. "He'll notice," I warned.

"Tough." But Jonathon did look a little panicky.

"What are you going to do?" I asked the Man with the Scissors. "Make them smaller and smaller each time till they disappear altogether?"

"That's my cunning, long-term plan, yes."

I had a quick vision of my distraught baby holding a few fibres of mockie cloth between trembling, sucky fingers. Or, worse, a nerdy, bachelor Raphael aged 421/2, clutching a briefcase and a newspaper and a centimetre square of mockie in his sweaty palm as he commuted to an office somewhere in Grownupsville.

Actually, Raphael didn't mind the smaller mockies at all, but a whole new litter of problems was born. They got lost and reappeared down the sides of sofas, under beds, behind bookcases - and sometimes the organised child preferred to carry two at once, one for now and one for later. Just in case.

"This is ridiculous," we chorused. An otherwise secure, lively child, Raphael was physically hampered by nearly always having a mockie up his nose and a thumb in his mouth.

"Comfort objects are fine," soothed every book, magazine or teacher I consulted. "No need to remove them too early." But the mockies weren't mere comfort objects, they were a career, an art, a total preoccupation, a life's work. Our kid did nothing else.

"I'm going to phase them out," said Jonathon finally.

And, one by one, the mockies mysteriously disappeared from our house till there was just one left drying on the radiator in our bedroom. I snatched it up - pale blue and warm and devastatingly furry - and put it in a little box where I keep all my own licky sucky things: the plastic baby name bracelets worn in the hospital, the locks of pale, silky baby hair, the impossibly small vests, the cheap-but-somehow evocative Mothercare velour rattle.

Jonathon, meanwhile, congratulated himself on the mockie-free zone he'd created. But it was short-lived. Raphael had moved on to rabbits. A crowd of nine or 10 toy rabbits had been assembled on his bed and he wouldn't leave the house without a fake fur rabbit ear stuck up his nose.

Hence the cull.

Later on, the kids and I go round to Emily's to see the squirrel, who's had to have a toe amputated at the vet's but is otherwise fine and getting very tame. "Too tame," Emily frets. "It's awful. I'm sure it needed that toe to balance - I don't know how we're going to rehabilitate it into the wild."

The squirrel's a baby, round and fat and grey with bulging black eyes. It runs around Emily's dining room, not seeming to miss the toe. The children shriek with delight, but it remains unfazed.

That evening, I walk down our street to post a letter and kids on bicycles are shouting, and each house is giving up its private smells - fish, gravy, wisteria, babyfood - and someone's putting out bags of paper for recycling and a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses are ringing door bells.

Upstairs, I check the children. Chloe's got her arms around Ken - tonight he's wearing a doll's nappy and a rucksack. Raphael's sleeping with a tin of Batman Pasta.

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